How Astronomy Influenced the Energy Sector

In this guest blog, Megan Ray Nichols explores some ways in which developments in Astronomy and space have influenced the energy sector

Modern astronomy has roots dating back to the earliest cultures on Earth and, although we have high-tech tools and gadgetry that make it possible to study the science without even stepping foot outdoors, it’s an art that is highly useful and influential to this day. You don’t have to be Ptolemy, Galileo or Carl Sagan to appreciate astronomy, and you don’t have to look into the night sky to see how it continues to shape our culture — evidence can be found all throughout the energy sector.

Crude Oil Refinement

The sector of crude oil refinement has benefited immensely from the marriage between astronomy and next-gen technology. Although proponents of the industry view it as a lost cause, it is salvageable — but it’s going to take a massive and concentrated effort.

Several companies, including BP and Texaco, now use IDL, or Interactive Data Language, to analyze core samples collected from functional oil fields. The highly advanced image-processing software is well-known and widely used among many members of the scientific community, including astronomers.

Crude oil and fossil fuels have a bad reputation, especially among the environmentalist and eco-friendly consumers of the 21st century, but they are a valuable asset once they’re properly cleaned, controlled and maintained. To optimize our energy sector to its fullest extent, we must learn how to use all our natural resources in a way that is as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible.

Solar Energy

Consumers have been using solar energy, albeit in limited amounts, for decades. Even handheld calculators — like the ones we used in school — passively collect UV rays to maintain battery longevity. The link between solar energy and astronomy is one of the most obvious on this list, but there’s still a long way to go before the technology is perfect.

This isn’t stopping companies from pursuing their own interests in solar powerMany solar panel businesses strive to create the most efficient panels on the market. Fortunately, everyone benefits from this competition. Today, solar radiation collectors are far more efficient and reliable than traditional devices. Most panels have an energy-efficiency rating between 11 and 15 percent.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is now cleaner and safer than ever before — and many of the improvements are a direct result of astronomy, technology or both. It’s easy to be scared away by the threat of a nuclear meltdown or similar catastrophe, and there are certainly safety issues surrounding nuclear reactors, but stringent guidelines and regulations have mitigated much of the risk. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Human Performance Handbook, approximately 80 to 90 percent of incidents stem from human error

Some experts believe that X-ray telescopes, which can now monitor and analyze plasma fusion, have the potential to create nuclear energy that is even cleaner and safer than its current state.

If engineers can figure out how to control this plasma fusion, it would be one of the biggest breakthroughs of our time. While it may take some time for such an innovation to come to fruition, we’re taking leaps and bounds in the right direction.

Digging Deeper Into the Relationship Between Astronomy and Technology

Astronomy and technology are two fields that have both come a long way since their original, independent inceptions. It’s impossible to imagine an existence without them, yet it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll take us — or what forms they’ll assume — in the future. Only one thing is clear: They’ll continue to direct our collective cultures and societies for centuries to come.

This blog post was written by Megan Ray Nichols, a Freelance Science Writer. Find her at Content in the blog post is copyright of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of the Office of Astronomy for Development.